The sprit of the 1960s and ’70s, that which reshaped our nation, redefined a people, and changed America on a fundamental level, can be summarized in three words: “Run, Forrest, run!” Robert Zemeckis’s 1994 classic, Forrest Gump, is a film about a country in transition. Its title character embodies that country and represents its journey through history, running the whole way. Forrest Gump represents change, and a challenge to the established status quo, yet he is a character that has been adopted by right-wing politicians as a shining example of why we should look to our past to recover our lost virtues. Conservatives, especially during the 1994 congressional elections, latched on to the film’s less-than-favorable depiction of radical Liberalism. But, their analysis overlooked the fact that this film does not advocate for a return to past values, and instead recommends a rationed approach to progress. As a character born from deep within American history, Gump breaks the oppression of earlier generations, navigates the tumult of cultural flux, and leads the nation from past to present—not the other way around.
A feather falls from the sky, blowing one way, then the other. Up, down, left, right—it glides through the small-town streets and lands at the feet of Forrest Gump. We are first introduced to Forrest through a close-up on his shoes, ragged and covered in mud. “You can tell a lot about a person from their shoes,” he would later recite. The camera tracks out to a longer shot of his body as he sits at a bus stop. As he picks up the feather, the camera pans to his suitcase, filled with keepsakes from the last two decades. He pulls out his favorite book, Curious George, and places the feather inside. This is a man on the move. This is a man who carries with him the lessons of his past, but is not afraid to progress onwards to forge a new path.
Named after the Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest, Gump carries in his very name the memory of a failed past, to remind him, his momma said, “that sometimes we all do things that, well, just don’t make no sense.” He was raised in a house that had been in his family for generations, since they came across the ocean “a thousand years ago, or something like that.” This house in the rural south, rented out to travelers passing through, represents Old America, and a history of all the people that have composed it. Although his momma nurtures him, Forrest is a victim of this era. He is classified as “stupid,” “different,” and literally shackled in his leg braces.
Jenny is his childhood friend and one true love. Also a victim of her past, she came from a broken home with an abusive father and wanted nothing more than to turn into a bird and “fly far, far away.” Jenny would come to directly represent the era's yearning for change and the radical youth of America trying, by whatever means possible, to escape their history. Both characters are held in bondage by their inherited troubled pasts. In an early pivotal scene, Forrest is chased down by his bike-riding classmates (in a later, near-identical scene, they ride in a car with Confederate Flag plates). Jenny’s famous calls to “Run!” empower Forrest to finally break from his leg braces, physically and symbolically freeing him from the constraints imposed upon him. As the braces fell from his legs, clattering as they tumbled to the ground, the new, vibrant spirit of a nation was born, heading full speed away from what it once was. “From that day on,” Forrest says, “if I was going somewhere, I was running.”
And everywhere Forrest ran, change came with him. He showed Elvis how to dance. He helped integrate the University of Alabama. He was a Vietnam War hero, then unwittingly led an anti-war rally, then inspired the lyrics of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” He met Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, then (without trying to) got Nixon kicked out of office. Many of these sequences featured classic televised images with Forrest edited in, establishing him as an integral part of American history and the images that define it.
Jenny becomes an agent of change as well, but chooses a different path. She gets swept up in every counter-culture movement that comes along, and at every step her ideals are exploited. She wanted to become a folk singer like Joan Baez, but the only gig she can get is in a strip club, playing her guitar naked under the name “Bobbi Dylan.” When she becomes involved in the anti-war movement, she gets beat by her activist boyfriend from Berkeley. Her unrelenting desire to fly away put her on the wrong side of change. In the seventies she gets caught up in partying and drugs, eventually culminating in a scene in which she stands out on a balcony considering suicide. As Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” blares in the background, Jenny contemplates “flying away” from her troubles for good and ending her life.
Jenny’s character is typically where conservatives latch on in an attempt to brand the film as promoting their ideals. In 1994, House Republican Leader Newt Gingrich argued that his film is a “reaffirmation that the counterculture destroys human beings and basic values,” and used Forrest Gump as fuel for his campaign to “reverse the moral decline” he believed began in the 1960s. Critic Thomas Byers agreed, arguing that the film was “aggressively conservative,” and that it attempted to vilify much of the counterculture in the 1960s, in favor of more traditional values. The 1994 congressional election brought throngs of republicans into Congress, and Forrest Gump was, to some extent, their rallying cry.
While the film does warn against radical and uncontrolled liberalism, it is equally critical of staunch conservatism and stresses the necessity to progress. After all, Forrest didn’t break free until Jenny told him to do so, imparting some aspect of her escapism on him. “Death is just a part of life,” Forrest’s mother told him before she passed, “Something we’re all destined to do. I didn’t know it, but I was destined to be your momma.” As the matriarch of the Gump house, she represented the America that cared for, nurtured and raised Forrest: the time before the 1960s. When Forrest’s mother died, so too did an era, and an ideology. He went back to live in the old house, but it felt empty. We see Forrest all alone in the massive house of the mythic Old America, cutting the grass of its sprawling empty lawn. Somehow, returning to the past didn’t seem right. That time was done. When Jenny returned briefly to the Gump estate, the two were happy again. They conceived a child, laying the seeds for a new American chapter, but Jenny ran off yet again the next day.
In a beautiful series of shots, Forrest wakes to find Jenny gone, looks at his medals from the war, looks at Jenny’s empty bed, sits all alone in the painfully empty house, and then steps onto the porch. The camera zooms in on his brand new pair of running shoes, then up to his face. Then, he puts on his hat and jogs off. He runs across America, time and time again, and with massive media coverage and public attention he symbolically brings the entire nation with him. He spends most of his running time thinking about Jenny, the Vietnam War, and everything he’s done for the past two decades. “Momma always said you got to put the past behind you before you can move on,” Forrest explains. “And I think that’s what my running was all about.” This segment represents America’s search for something new. It does anything but demonstrate a reliance on traditional values or long-forgotten ideals.
The final chapter of this film shows Forrest and Jenny finally rejoining and raising their son. When Gump returns from his run, he visits Jenny to find that he is the father of her child, who she named Forrest. His son is incredibly intelligent, and “the most beautiful thing [Forrest Sr.] has ever seen.” Jenny and Forrest Sr. get married and raise their son in the old Gump house, bringing new life to the estate and beginning a new chapter for America. Jenny dies from an unknown virus (most likely AIDS), ending the turbulent era of the sixties and seventies, but her child lives on.
Like his father before him, Forrest Jr. was named after his ancestors. He is a product of his history but represents a new life and a new future separate from anything before him. But this new, glorious child, would not be possible without both the rationed progress of Forrest Sr. and the tumultuous journey of Jenny. It is the combination of the two, the lessons learned and the progress made by both, that made way for this new creation.
Conservatives claim that this film reinforces their ideological platform, returning to “traditional” American values, because it condemns the counter-culture of the sixties and seventies. While it may take a stance against radicalism, showing that rejecting all tenants of society and trying to “fly away” can be suicidal (both literally and figuratively), the film never hints that looking backwards is the answer. When we’re lost, the film proposes, we need to find our own way, one that incorporates all that we’ve learned from our triumphs and mistakes, and move forward from there. Forrest’s example shows that we need to find a way to progress without becoming radical or regressive. We shouldn’t move too recklessly, but we shouldn’t stand still—we should run.